Research project

Displaced communities, environmental degradation and sustainable livelihoods in Uganda

This research uses a blend of Earth Observation and social science qualitative and participatory community-based methods to better understand human-environment interactions in refugee settings in Uganda. The work will directly contribute to policy and responses to create sustainable solutions for reducing environmental degradation and creating better livelihoods

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Start date

January 2019



UK Global Challenges Research Fund

Uganda’s Refugee Act of 2006 has long been praised for its progressive approach to welcoming refugees, providing access to land for shelter, and agriculture for establishing long-term sustainable livelihoods. This policy, coupled with significant conflict in neighbouring countries, means refugee numbers in Uganda continue to grow, with the nation now hosting over 1.2 million people from across neighbouring borders.  

In the south and west of the country refugee camps are well established and although growing, have hosted displaced populations for decades. In the north, the recent crises in South Sudan have witnessed an unprecedented volume of refugees crossing the border in a very short space of time. In both these contexts the ways in people are interacting with their environments has received little investigation.

To address this, a research project funded as part of the UK Global Challenges Research Fund brings together researchers from Uganda and the UK with a combination of expertise in social and natural sciences to explore the impacts of population displacement on environmental degradation and the subsequent development of sustainable livelihoods in settlements in Uganda.   

The growth of refugee camps for immediate support to those displaced has both alleviated the suffering of crisis as well as created opportunities for resettlement through access to land. However, land, forest and soil degradation pose a severe threat to the development of long-term sustainable livelihoods in the landscapes surrounding the camps.

Examining the extent of environmental impacts and the way in which refugees’ access and use locally available ecosystem services provides a valuable contribution to informing future practice in relocating refugees, minimising the degradation of local environments and promoting sustainable livelihoods for relocated people.

By combining an understanding of the changes to the physical environment and the way in which refugees access and use local landscapes, the project addresses an existing lack of research on the interrelationship between forced migrants’ use of natural resources, environmental degradation and livelihood sustainability, particularly in rural contexts. Specifically, it aims to produce a more situated understanding of local community livelihoods and challenges at individual and household levels, whilst drawing attention to broader political-economic contexts that structure and influence human-environment relations. 

The project includes researchers from the University of Dundee and Makerere University, Uganda, and comprises two key parts:   

Community-based approach

Firstly, to explore the ways in which refugees and local populations use their knowledge, skills and resources in interactions with ecosystem services for creating survival strategies and livelihood options we have employed a community-based approach.

In the refugee settlements of Kyangwali (western Uganda) and Bidi Bidi (northern Uganda) we have conducted household surveys, in-depth interviews and participatory mapping with a variety of households and communities to uncover human-environment interactions. The qualitative participatory methods adopted are geared towards an in-depth exploration of knowledges, values, needs and practices as they relate to livelihoods and natural resource use.

Participatory sketch-mapping activities assist refugee and host communities articulate important socio-cultural and historical knowledge concerning local spatialities and land-use, as well as helping to resolve resource-related conflict.   

Earth Observation technology

Secondly, to understand how landscapes and around refugee settlements have changed over time the project is using satellite-based Earth Observation technology, deriving indicators of environmental degradation and available ecosystem services. 

A combination of land cover classification (to derive forest and land cover change), vegetation indices and a synergistic blend of SAR and optical data is being used to map trajectories of change in ecosystem services and vegetation cover over the last 40 years. This will determine the scale of habitat and landscape fragmentation, and will link to the understanding on livelihood strategies and highlight hotspots of activity. 


External team members

The research is informed by our Advisory Board, comprising representatives from the Ugandan Government Office of the Prime Minister, UNICEF, Oxfam and environmental agencies, who meet regularly to guide and review the project. 

We have also signed a Memorandum of Understanding between Makerere University, University of Dundee and the Office of the Prime Minister to ensure that the outcomes of the project are translated into policy and inform the very highest levels of Government within the region.